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Ownership of The Arts Voyager & Dance Insider, as well as our sister publication Art Investment News, is available FREE to a new owner who will keep the present editor on staff part-time and help him get a carte de sejour to return to France, plus provide health insurance in France. For details please contact editor & publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

Flash Festival Review, 5-10: Overdue Daves
An actor's director at Anthology Film Archives

Promotional poster for Delmer Daves's 1947 "The Red House." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

In assessing filmmakers, it's easy to concentrate on the obvious -- their technical and compositional skill at the art of making movies -- and forget that movie directors, like stage directors, are also coaches of actors, adept at recognizing their strengths and treating their weaknesses, with the ultimate end of advancing their performances in the service of the plot. The biggest revelation that comes out of a screening of four of the films Anthology Film Archives will be showing beginning beginning May 10 in Overdue, curated by critics Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold and this year focusing on Delmer Daves, is the miracle Daves performed with Glenn Ford. A prototypical Hollywood he-man of the late forties through sixties, Ford often seemed to just show up, relying on his charisma to charm the audience. His one-dimensional interpretations deadened major films with meaty scripts, notably the WW II Occupation epic "The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse" and "Human Desire," an adaptation of Emile Zola's "La Bete Humaine," in which Ford paled next to Jean Gabin in Renoir's version. But Daves, working with a much less dazzlingly dramatic material for the realist 1958 cattle drive pic "Cowboy" (one might even call it a range procedural) was able to succeed where, respectively, his much more acclaimed colleagues Vincente Minnelli and Fritz Lang were not, practically transforming Ford into a Method actor in the finest performance of his career.

The story is straightforward, pitting Ford's fiery range boss Tom Reece against greenhorn partner Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon), in a script based on Harris's "My Reminiscences as a Cowboy." When Ford, at the end of a long cattle drive which opens the picture, charges into the lobby of the ritzy Chicago hotel where Lemmon works as a desk clerk, one can almost see Daves directing him to take charge, as if everyone around him was just more cattle to be wrangled. Sure, he takes advantage of his lead's ability at bombast, as when Ford gets rid of a cockroach he spots from his bathtub by shooting it, but more often one sees restraint. When Lemmon reacts callously to the news that a crew member, a retired lawman played by Steve Dunleavy (another typical action figure from whom Daves wrings a mellowed portrayal) has just hung himself after shooting his best friend in a drunken brawl, by saying they don't have time to mourn him, Reece's declaration "You haven't gotten tough, you've just gotten miserable," is not a grandiloquent speech but a simple statement of fact. He even allows himself to be unsure after he's wounded while saving the greenhorn from marauding Indians, which Harris takes advantage of by taking over as trail boss. Daves has succeeded in convincing an actor who relies on his easy confidence that a little vulnerability will make him more effective. And that awkward speechifying will make him seem more authentically human. Delivering a eulogy for a trail hand killed by a snake, Ford's Reece awkwardly tries to make sense of it: "We don't know the answers. All we know is that a man's dead and that's that. In the long run, I don't think it would have made any difference anyhow; if it hadn't been a snake that had got him, it would have been a steer, or a Comanche. It might have been his horse, who might have stumbled in a prairie dog hole some dark night... He was a good man with cattle, who always did the best he knew how; I hope somebody can say the same over me."

This is not to say Daves is afraid to exploit Ford's charisma when it comes time to deliver the money lines from Edmund H. North and Dalton Trumbo's script, as when he laments, "Someday there's going to be fences up and down this trail -- I'd rather fight Indians any day than cut my way through those miserable fences." "Cowboy" plays May 11 at 7 p.m. and May 13 and 16 at 9:15..

Richard Widmark in Delmer Daves's 1956 "The Last Wagon." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Daves deals with Holllywood's often wooden depictions of Indians as miserable marauders in the 1956 "The Last Wagon," a sort of follow-up to the 1950 "Broken Arrow," also part of this mini-festival. Unfortunately, one of the hazards of being relegated to second-tier director status is that one often has to hang one's picture on the power of one star. Here Richard Widmark plays a white man raised as a Comanche, being taken to be hanged by the surviving brother of a group of four he's relentlessly pursued after they killed his Indian wife and children. The two join up with a wagon train; when most of the party is killed by Apaches (avenging a slaughter of their people), Widmark must lead the young survivors through the Apache gauntlet to safety. Theoretically it's this selfless feat, plus the love of a white woman and her brother, played by Tommy Rettig, that saves him from the gallows, but I'm not so sure that even Lassie can save this picture from the hovering question about whether all might have ended so well if this Indian hadn't been a paleskin. "The Last Wagon" plays May 11 at 9:15 p.m. and May 16 at 7, and its companion piece "Broken Arrow" May 11 at 5 and May 14 at 7.

James Stewart in Delmer Daves's 1950 "Broken Arrow." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

The 1945 "Pride of the Marines," showing May 10 at 6:45 p.m., May 12 at 5, and May 14 at 9, might have simply been called "Pride" so as not to put off those of us who don't like violent war pics, as this is its principal theme. John Garfield plays a marine blinded (in the movie's most overtly harrowing scene) by a grenade flung by a dying Japanese solider after he's mowed down all the rest with the help of just two mates holed up in a Guadalcanal dug-out. But his bravery deserts him back home when he calls off his wedding (to a sweetheart played by the stunning Eleanor Parker) because he doesn't want his girl to marry him out of pity, prompting his fox-hole comrade to scold him, in one of scriptwriter Albert Maltz's many zingers, "Don't leave your guts back on the canal, you need them here too." If the movie has a flaw, it's that it comes across as a message picture; the war wounded do not always heal so easily and formulaically as does Al Schmid, Garfield's blinded warrior. (In a sign of the movies' changing perspective on war, 25 years later Maltz would ask that his name be removed from the credits for the Clint Eastwood Civil War gothic "Beguiled" after another scriptwriter was brought in to pen a more bleak ending in which none of the characters gets off clean.)

Eleanor Parker and John Garfield in Delmer Daves's 1945 "Pride of the Marines." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Released two years after "Pride of the Marines," "The Red House" might have been just another rural gothic if not for the multi-dimensional performances of Edward G. Robinson, as a farm patriarch with a terrible secret (don't go into the woods becomes a literal and psychological warning against trespassing), and Judith Anderson as the spinster sister (does Judith Anderson ever not play a spinster sister?) helping him keep that secret. Where Daves's craft comes in here is in how he uses light not just to evoke mood but to enhance the presence and luminosity of the other performers, notably Allene Roberts as Meg, Robinson's curious and menaced teenage charge, as when her illuminated face stands out like a beacon of truth set off by the shadows in her room which threaten to envelope her.

To return to acting, one of the secondary rewards of Anthology's focus on directors that don't often get mainstream (or even TCM) attention is that it often reveals the less mainstream work of great actors. Between "Little Caesar" and "Soylent Green," Robinson had a whole career playing emotionally and/or physically crippled ranch patriarchs (and Daves may have been the first to see and exploit that side of him), and because he's a real actor (unlike Ford, he couldn't just rely on rugged good looks), even his bad guys are sympathetic. Once again, by not just following the route of its European counterparts and presenting festival after festival of Hitchcock and Hawkes, of Ford and Truffaut as refresher courses on the talents of the masters, by focusing on less celebrated film-makers, Jonas Mekas's Anthology Film Archives continues to reveal the less-heralded treasures of the seventh art and thus the intricacies of the form, expanding our awareness and understanding of its potential and potency. "The Red House" plays May 10 at 9:15 p.m. and May 13 at 7.

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